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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 11, 2001

Hirono retreat speaks volumes

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief

Several dozen of Mazie Hirono's supporters dutifully lined up for the cameras Friday morning at the Plaza Club, but some looked mildly uncomfortable. Jill Tokuda, a campaign volunteer, faced the group and forced a grin, pointing at the corners of her mouth.

Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono was a loyal Democratic Party insider for 20 years.

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"Smile," she told Hirono's backers in a stage whisper.

Moments later, Hirono stepped into the room, beaming. But for many of her supporters, the announcement that Hirono would run for Honolulu mayor was no happy occasion.

To all outward appearances, her decision smacked of a retreat from the grueling race for governor to a mayoral contest where it takes fewer votes to win, and where Hirono calculated she has a better chance of success.

So how did Mazie Hirono, who spent more than 20 years paying her dues as a hard-working, loyal Democratic Party insider, find herself suddenly forced to give up her big moment, the campaign for governor?

People inside and outside her campaign said Hirono was caught by powerful cross-currents in her party and trapped by difficult circumstances at a critical time in Hawai'i's political history.

Others blame her more directly, saying she failed to exploit her position as lieutenant governor to grab public attention and build an effective political base from which she could have launched her gubernatorial campaign.

For the record, Hirono said she wasn't afraid to take on Jeremy Harris and that she believes she would have defeated him in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. But she repeatedly refused to give any specific reason for suddenly abandoning her quest to be governor to run for a powerful yet undeniably lower-profile office.

"I'm not avoiding the race. I'm choosing another race," she said. "People can make whatever they want of it, but the bottom line is I have a commitment to the people of the city and county of Honolulu and I'm going to work damn hard to get elected, and I'm going to be a good mayor."

Hirono's announcement had been rumored to be coming for years. After the 1998 campaign, the buzz in political circles was that party leaders such as U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye had brokered a deal, convincing Harris not to run against Cayetano for governor. In exchange, according to the story, Harris would then get a clear shot at the governor's office in 2002.

All denied such a deal was ever made, and Hirono reaffirmed many times that she did plan to run for governor. On Friday, she bluntly denied that the party interfered in her plans.

"Nobody from the party tried to push me out," she said. "In fact, there were people in the party who urged me to run for governor and there were people in the party who urged me to run for mayor."

And the Democratic Party kingmaker, Inouye, made a point of praising Hirono's decision as "a courageous one ... (that) demonstrates her political philosophy that the greater good of the people is more important than personal gain and self-pride."

Others such as Republican Party executive director Micah Kane made it clear he believes Hirono was pushed out. "It just goes to show that they manipulate their candidates for political pawns, and you almost feel sad for their candidates," he said.

Since the 1970s, George Ariyoshi, John Waihe'e and Cayetano all set the stage for their gubernatorial campaigns by first serving as lieutenant governor, and it was clear Hirono had the same expectation.

But there was also persistent chatter in Democratic Party circles asserting that "Mazie can't win," a shorthand for her perceived weaknesses: a bland public persona, uncomfortably liberal positions at a time of increased conservatism, an apparent lack of vision. Hirono said she never understood the logic behind that talk.

The talk moved to action when a group of prominent Democrats including former party chairman Walter Heen moved to draft longtime Republican D.G. "Andy" Anderson to run for governor as a Democrat. It was the clearest sign that some people with power lacked confidence in Hirono.

"Probably they figure that she can't win. If she can't win, get a winning candidate," said Yas Kuroda, professor of political science at the University of Hawai'i.

Questions about Hirono's ability to win may have grown out of her relatively low profile as lieutenant governor, a job that carries few direct responsibilities compared to Harris' position as mayor of Honolulu.

While Harris effectively used his position to get in front of the cameras for ribbon-cuttings, park dedications and, most recently, the anthrax scare, Hirono's job rarely allowed her to attract that sort of attention. Her best-known initiative, a plan to reduce government bureaucracy known as the Slice Waste And Tape program, or SWAT, grabbed few headlines.

"I think that's what happens for lieutenant governors all across the country," Hirono said. "I think that's what happens to the second in command, but that doesn't mean that I haven't been working and accomplishing a lot."

Media coverage — or lack of it — had "nothing to do" with her shift to the mayor's race.

Hirono was also battered by upheavals within the Democratic Party, where the cadre of 1970s-liberals like herself grew less influential each year, nudged aside by a new breed of centrists like Harris. Although Hirono cultivated enduring relationships with the state's labor leaders, it didn't help when Cayetano took on the teachers and other public employee unions, alienating a huge chunk of the party's constituency.

"The party has been factionalized beyond anything in my day," said George Ariyoshi, who served as governor from 1973 to 1986.

Fund-raising was also an issue, although Hirono said it was not a deciding factor. Winning the Democratic primary and general election for governor will cost millions of dollars, and the candidates face special problems this year.

An unprecedented 76 House and Senate seats will be up for election in 2002, along with the positions of governor, lieutenant governor, mayor, nine City Council seats and dozens of political positions on the Neighbor Islands.

The crowded field means the usual sources of campaign contributions will be tapped early and often, making it harder than ever to raise money.

Then Sept. 11 came, shoving the state economy into a pit. Big campaign events suddenly looked unseemly, and contributors became more scarce than ever.

"It has made it hard for everybody to raise money, and I run a very grass-roots kind of campaign, and I think that I can run a grass-roots campaign again for mayor," Hirono said. "It's more my kind of campaign."

Some in Hirono's camp also worry about the effect the slumping state economy will have on Democrats next year.

A lousy economy tends to favor challengers over incumbents, and outsiders over the party in power. Republican Linda Lingle was able to harness dissatisfaction with the economy in 1998 to nearly oust Cayetano, and if the state's economic problems continue or get worse, next year could be a grim year for the Democrats.

That made the nonpartisan winner-take-all September election for mayor with a field of at least a half dozen contenders look more promising, especially with Hirono's strong name recognition.

Kuroda said he believes Hirono made a "rational decision" and apparently is trying to be realistic.

"I don't think this means that she has given up hope of becoming governor some day," he said. "I think maybe this is a wise choice. She's still young, and in the long run this may be better."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.